Self-reflections, self-understanding

A community in Sudan where Kota worked.

Mr Kota Iwaki

During my field engagement in Sitio Bendum, Mindanao in the Philippines, I experienced so many things. My thoughts on these experiences were refined through the activities and discussions with local community people and my classmates. I would like to share some of those reflections, especially some reflections about myself.

From the time I arrived in Bendum, I had plenty of time. Except for some activities and sessions, I had nothing to do. I was free from the many obligations of city and academic life. It made me wonder whether the things that I felt were obligations were really the things I had to do in my life. For example, maintaining my social relationships on the web. It occupies a lot of time but it often gives me nothing important in return and is not really necessary to my life. Life in Bendum was one without electric devices. This was probably the first time that I was totally offline since I started using my cellphone and PC. One day in Bendum felt twice as long as one day in the city. It was so nice to have some time to do nothing and just face what was deep inside of me. I learned not to do anything. It is important to have this kind of time. This was my first reflection.
However, it was not so easy to face myself. When I thought about myself, I thought about my future. When I thought of my future, I was concerned about many things: my internship, job, and so on. Since I was an aid worker before and because I wish to be one again in the future, I was also observing Bendum through the lens of international aid and community development. I actually tried not to do so and I tried to face the community just as myself, but I couldn’t do it well. It was automatic. I didn’t care about this point so much at the time, but now I wonder if I can really face community as a person, and not as an aid worker or student. There might not be a big difference but there might be a slight difference. One day, when we visited another village, we heard about some issues they had at the school. During the question-and-answer session, one person suddenly asked us what we could do for the village. Our companion tactfully explained that we were students and not visitors from aid organizations. At the time, I felt that we were welcomed as helpers, not as friends. In the same logic, people in Bendum also might have felt the same way I did. If I faced people as an aid worker, I might unconsciously distance myself from them and create a sort of power structure between them.

That was probably because I couldn’t separate myself from my past experiences, my experiences as an aid worker in a community like Bendum and as a master’s student of international law. From the time I arrived in Bendum, I was also automatically telling myself that I was just an outsider and would be leaving them in a week. I also tried not to see the problems as if I were part of the community.

These were the lessons I learned when I was working in a similar community in Sudan. There were many problems—no clean water, no health center, no electricity, and no school with dormitory. When I was first stationed there, I could easily work out solutions to some, but not all, of those problems. However, I was told not to do so, because I was not a part of the community. Even though I was expected to do so by people in the community, I knew that I would be leaving at least within a few years.

So, my job was to encourage people to see the problems, to assist them in solving the problems by themselves, but not to tackle the issues by myself. Such an experience made me feel some sort of impatience to do community development work.

On the fourth day in Bendum, when I was asked whether I had experienced anything that I needed to internalize, I thought about this again. I think I have not yet fully absorbed this point yet. Perhaps, I am not mature enough to internalize this. Therefore, if I have a chance to work for a community again, I will probably still struggle to maintain a balance on this point. I am still not sure how to face community people: should I face them as if I were a friend, or part of the community, or I should just reason that I am an outsider leaving someday?

The young people in Bendum also made me notice two things. In the community, I saw some young boys who voluntarily organized their group and worked for their community. When we went to plant abaca, there were three volunteer boys with us. For us, the work of planting was so difficult, but they worked quickly and looked like they enjoyed doing their work. Later, we were shocked by the cheap price of the abaca we planted.

Life in the city and life in Bendum are simply different. It is not a judgment about which is good or which is bad. But, I realized there was one very ironic thing. We, especially in Japan, are regarded as “developed” but we, Japanese people, don’t look like we enjoy our work or our lives. On the other hand, Bendum people are regarded as “developing” but they looked like they really enjoy their lives.

This again reminded me of my past experience. When I first got a job, I was working for one of the biggest companies in Japan. The salary was good but I worked more than 12 hours every day. Although I was unbelievably busy and earned much money, I ironically felt emptiness in my heart. At the time, I told myself that life was not just about being busy and earning money and I thought about what I really wanted to do.

After some consideration, I decided to work for an NGO in Africa, even though my salary was less than half of what I was earning in my previous job. I was not that busy and didn’t earn a lot of money, but I was happy about what I was doing in Africa. One of the most important things to me is whether or not I can love what I do. I realized this myself, but the Bendum youth made me remember this. As I get older however, this principle of my life is being shaken. As I am getting older, I am caught between what I want to do and anxiety about my future, my parents’ issues, my own family, etc. This is another point that I will have to balance for myself very soon after I graduate: what I want to do and how much, and who I need in my life.

In Bendum, children also realize the importance of education and they are very eager in their studies. Although it might be better for their parents to let their children work to earn some income, they are also pleased to send their children to school. Some alumni have come back to the community and are now teaching the younger generation.

I was also amazed by the actions of the youth and their potential. When we discussed the key components of the community’s youth program, my group raised so many challenges. However, those challenges didn’t seem to be very problematic for me, since the children in the community were full of possibilities for the future.

I think perhaps the biggest challenge for them will not come from the outside, but rather is something internal; the challenge is if they can believe in their own possibilities or not. If they can, then I believe that they can surmount any obstacle.

Later, I asked the same question of myself and I realized that I might be the one who did not believe in my own potential. I am scared of my uncertain future. But I too feel that if I can believe in my own possibility, then I believe that I can overcome any difficulty.

During my stay in Bendum, I experienced and felt lots of things. First, I learned to do nothing and think deeply about myself. Second, I realized that even though I thought I was observing and feeling the Bendum community, what I was doing in fact was observing and feeling myself. Third, I was also focused on what I felt and believed about the people in the community, especially the youth, but this is also what I need to focus on for myself. In this sense, I think I learned a lot of things from this field experience about myself through the community and the people.

Kota Iwaki is currently taking his Master’s Degree in International Law and Settlement of Disputes at the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica and in Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines under the Asia Peacebuilders Scholarship (APS) program. He completed his BA Law degree in Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan. Before joining APS, he worked in advertising in Japan from 2008-2010, then in a Japanese NGO in Sudan from 2010-2012. He will be doing his internship at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia. In the future, he would like to do aid work for refugees based on his knowledge of international law. Someday, he would like to return to Africa, but is also interested in working in the Middle East.

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